Alaska Airlines is tightening its policy on emotional support dogs. We’re learning more businesses are taking similar steps, and state lawmakers are getting into the issue.

Customers traveling with emotional support dogs will now have to provide health and behavioral documents, as well as a doctor’s note at least two days before departure. This change starts May 1st and does not apply to traditional service animals. 

So what other changes are we seeing here in Hawaii?

We first told you in February about a proposal that would penalize people who try to pass off their pets as service animals. It has become a growing problem with reports of these untrained animals attacking people and traditional service dogs.  

The measure, SB2461 SD1 HD1, has moved through the legislative session and now sits in conference committee. The fines for the violation haven’t been determined yet and there’s still some concern about enforcement.

“If it gets passed, businesses I think would feel a little more emboldened today to say ‘Okay, this state is behind us here, we are going to remind people that you must have a disability and you must have the dog trained,'” said Jim Kennedy of Hawaii Fi-Do Service Dogs. 

Kennedy says more and more businesses have been cracking down on fake service animals. 

“You’ve got Costco and Safeway who come out with really bold, in-your-face, no-way-your-going-to-miss-these signs at the entry way and they basically say no animals allowed except service dogs,” he said. 

Experts say stores have these signs partly because untrained animals could become a liability.  

“Not every dog is trained and well behaved. You don’t want a dog to come in your store and bite another customer or even a child,” said Tina Yamaki of Retail Merchants of Hawaii. 

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses cannot demand proof of documentation or deny access to service dogs. However, they can say ‘no’ to emotional support dogs. 

“A comfort dog or an emotional support dog is different and it is not permitted to access rights that service dog is provided by ADA,” said Kennedy. “ADA does not protect emotional support dogs in stores.”

Current ADA laws limit what business owners can ask.

What questions can a covered entity’s employees ask to determine if a dog is a service animal? In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, staff may ask only two specific questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.

What is a service animal?
Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.  The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.

Are emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals considered service animals under the ADA?
No.  These terms are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person.  Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.  However, some State or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places.  You may check with your State and local government agencies to find out about these laws.

To learn more about the difference between emotional support dogs and service animals, and to know more about your rights, click here.